The world is going to need a bigger unicorn stable soon. 2021 is proving to be a record year, as never before have so many companies achieved this status in such a short time. The speed at which new unicorns are emerging is such that it is likely that from the time I have started writing this article until it has been published, at least three more unicorns will emerge. I am not making this up: every day 1.18 new unicorns are minted.
In 2021 alone, 203 new companies have achieved unicorn status, joining a herd of over 700 companies. In just over five months there are already 69% more new unicorns than in the whole of 2020. The Unicorn Club includes 120 companies that reached this milestone in 2020, a very similar number to 2019 (123) and 2018 (122). That year is when the stable started to fill up: there are only 154 startups with a value of more than a billion dollars that were created before 2017 that still belong in the club. In other words, there are 31% more startups valued at $1B+ in 2021 than there were between 2007 and 2017.
The term ‘unicorn’ was first used in 2013 to refer to a privately-held startup company valued at over $1 billion. The term was coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures. She chose this mythological animal because only a very small group of companies reach that value, and it is highly unusual to do so — almost impossible. The reality is that it is no longer so unusual, as the data shows.
The Unicorn Club in 2021 – Key trends
X-raying a club that welcomes a new member every day and where valuation is constantly fluctuating is no easy task. Thankfully, CB Insights regularly publishes very interesting studies analysing startups with a valuation over $1 billion. The most recent one includes all the unicorns that existed by the end of March 2021 when “only” 611 unicorns existed (today, there are already 101 more!). Head to the end of this article to see an infographic mapping out all 611 unicorns.
The most valuable unicorns in the world
According to data compiled by CB Insights, these tech start-ups have a collective value of over $2T and have raised a combined total of $426B. The world’s most valuable private company is ByteDance, reaching a $140B valuation following an investment from Tiger Global Management in March 2020. The Chinese multinational is the developer of content platforms such as TikTok and Toutiao.
Payment processing platform Stripe (valued at $95B) and aerospace company SpaceX ($74B) are ranked in second and third position. App-based transportation services Didi Chuxing ($62B) and online grocery delivery platform Instacart ($39B) complete the top three most valuable private companies.
The valuation of some of these companies has reached such a high point that the term ‘unicorn’ is no longer enough and new terms had to be coined to differentiate them.
ByteDance is now the only company considered to be a “hectocorn” (worth more than $100B). Meanwhile, 5% of all unicorns — 31 companies including the four previously mentioned and other such as Klarna, Databricks and Rivian — have reached “decacorn” status (valued at $10B+).
Fintech and internet software & services dominate the ranking
These two categories account for 30% of all unicorns (15% each). Stripe is the most valuable fintech unicorn ($95B) while website builder and hosting firm Squarespace ranks first in the internet software & services industry ($10B valuation as of March 2021).
The third biggest category is e-commerce & direct-to-consumer (12%), led by China-based fast fashion platform SHEIN (valued at $15B as of August 2020). In fourth position and growing at high speed, 8% of companies with billion-dollar valuations are in the artificial intelligence space. Another Chinese company is at the top of this category: the $140B tech firm ByteDance.
Half of all unicorns are US companies
One out of every two unicorns is founded or headquartered in the United States. The leadership of the US in this field is indisputable, with China in second place with 23% of companies in this prestigious club. Far behind are the UK (5%) and India (4%).
Despite having relatively few unicorns, Sweden and Brazil occupy a privileged position in the ranking. Swedish e-commerce payment solutions Klarna is the 6th highest-valued private company and Brazil’s fintech startup Nubank rounds out the top 10.
Communications and leadership advice from unicorn leaders
As an agency that works with some of the most disruptive brands in the world in the fields of technology, science and innovation, we are in constant contact with the employees of unicorn companies. In fact, some of our clients such as Workato and Riskified are members of the club.
In late 2019, we began a series of interviews with the leaders of unicorn companies as part of our Without Borders podcast in partnership with the csuite podcast. We wanted to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that startups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications.
So far, CEOs from 15 of the fastest growing businesses in the world have shared their experiences of leading companies that are shaping our future. We have interviewed visionaries such as Mike Massaro (CEO of Flywire), Avinash Rugoboor (President & Chief Strategy Officer of Arrival) and Mario Ciabarra (founder and CEO of Quantum Metric).
We recognise that not everyone has the time to listen to podcasts, so we have distilled the most valuable, actionable insights and bottled them in a more convenient form in an eBook that we will be publishing soon. Stay tuned!
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